Care and Feeding

My Daughter Has Her Heart Set on a College That I’m Pretty Sure Will Reject Her

Teen Asian girl looking sad
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is a junior in high school, and we have been gradually ramping up the college discussion with her over the past year or so. We have been able to save up a s**t ton of money (and so have her grandparents) so that financial aid will not be a big factor in her deciding where to go. The problem is that she has her heart set on the university that her father and I both attended—a university that no longer considers legacy status. And while she is definitely qualified, I definitely do not think it is likely she will be admitted, based on my past experience working in admissions at this university.

My husband and I have talked to her repeatedly about not having her heart set on a single school, but she replies nonchalantly, as she does have standardized test scores at or above the average for the school (her extracurriculars are good but not great). What we have not pointed out to her is that she is an Asian American female who wants to major in applied mathematics. We have not discussed affirmative action with her, and I feel like it will affect her extremely negatively. At the same time, though, I feel like I should let her develop her own opinions and not try to break her heart. Additionally, I have to try to tell her that her standardized test scores might not mean squat with the possibility of schools making standardized test scores optional (or not considering them at all). How should I approach this?

—Apprehensive Affirmative Action Mom

Dear Apprehensive,

I don’t think I’m in a great position to offer you advice about whether or not to talk to your daughter about affirmative action and its possible effect on her application. My instinct, I’ll confess, is that such a conversation isn’t necessary. But that’s neither here nor there, since I’m not a POC and my instincts in this area probably aren’t worth much.

What is worth something, and what I feel very confident about advising you on, is the overall picture of college admissions. Here, my instincts—and experience (both professional and personal) and knowledge—are rock solid.

There is absolutely no certainty about getting into one’s first-choice college. And if that college is an Ivy, or one of the elite so-called Little Ivies like Williams or Swarthmore, the factors that go into gaining admission—when a straight-A student even with perfect or near-perfect test scores and extracurricular leadership positions is being evaluated in a sea of such students—are so complicated (I would go so far as to say arcane), nobody should go into this process assuming it will work out exactly the way one hopes. Tell this to your daughter frankly, and tell it to her again and again.

I wouldn’t waste your energy trying to convince her not to have her heart set on your alma mater—but I would spend a lot of energy, time, travel (if possible), and words on helping her to find other schools that would be a good fit for her. You can’t protect her from feeling crushed if, as you suspect, she doesn’t get into her first-choice school—but you can help her a great deal, both in advance and later on, to see that her first-choice school isn’t the only place she’s going to be happy. Yes, she’ll be heartbroken when (if?) she is rejected from her dream school. But she will get over it. And what I know from experience is that very often (actually, in every single case in which I have experience) that second- or third- or fourth-choice college turns out not only to be precisely the right place for the once-upon-a-time brokenhearted student, but in fact a much better place for them to be. I cannot tell you why that is—it’s a mystery to me. But if indeed the time comes that your daughter has to make peace with a school she liked but didn’t love, feel free to tell her what I’ve just told you. She’ll be fine (better than fine).

Meanwhile—for now—focus on helping her make a strong list based on her interests and temperament. And here’s a piece of bonus advice from someone who has not only gone through this with her own daughter, and is herself a college professor, but has also been doing this kind of college advising professionally for the last decade: It’s OK if she strikes schools off her list for what seem to you trivial, irrelevant reasons. There are a lot of schools out there. If she wants to eliminate all colleges south of the Mason-Dixon line, or all colleges with a student body of fewer than 3,000, or one with a mascot she thinks is stupid or where the student tour guide was annoying when you took her for a visit—don’t argue with her. Let her make a robust list that pleases her. And if you think of it, down the line, let me know what happens!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a wonderful, mischievous, happy 10-month-old daughter named “Hannah.” Every time we video chat with my mother, she points out how much my daughter resembles my husband. Every. Single. Time. She says things like “You know, if I hadn’t seen you pregnant, I’d think she wasn’t yours,” and “Wow, you know, she really doesn’t look like you at all.” It’s true that Hannah takes more after her dad, but she also has my hair color and my own father’s eyes. When I look at her, I see a marvelous blend of our families. But my mother seems to see only my husband. It’s weird. And, as we get close to Hannah’s first birthday, it’s starting to piss me off. Why does she keep doing this? And how do I get her to stop? I’ve tried responding with things like “Hannah’s the perfect mix of both of us,” and “I think Hannah looks like Hannah,” but nothing changes. Am I overreacting?

—Happy Not to Have a Clone

Dear HNtHaC,

This is so obvious that perhaps you’ve already done it and got nowhere, but have you tried saying very calmly and firmly, “Mom. It really upsets me that you keep harping on this. Could you please stop?” If you’ve already tried this and it had no effect, I would stop engaging with her at all on this subject. What difference does it make why she’s doing this? And while I don’t think you’re “overreacting”—you’re just reacting, and your irritation is absolutely understandable—if asking her to stop hasn’t changed (or doesn’t change) anything, you are going to have to stop taking the bait. As I say in almost every column: We can’t make other people change their behavior. We are in control only of ourselves. So do what you can to redirect her attention. Next time she says something of this sort, just murmur a bored-sounding uh-huh and then talk about something else—to wit:

Mom: “Hannah looks even more like her dad than ever today!”

You: “Uh-huh. Hey, wait’ll you hear about this adorable thing she did this morning … ”

Mom: “Seriously, just look at her! She’s the spitting image of her father. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

You: “Uh-huh. So, she put a pot on her head and she shouted, ‘Mama, look—hat!’ ”

And if this doesn’t work—if you can’t get your mom to think or talk about anything else (in which case there may be an even bigger problem than you think)—tell her you’ve got to go and hang up (“Sorry—talk soon!”). If this happens often enough, maybe she’ll get the message and cut it out. If she doesn’t, and if you have no luck redirecting her, keep cutting her off and hanging up in a hurry. Just remember: Your task is not to fix her; it’s to protect yourself.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My parents are at extremely high risk for COVID. With their age and other medical conditions, their doctors have been frank with us that my father especially would not survive if he were to be infected. We are expecting a new baby girl soon, and I am not only protective of her but want her grandparents to have the opportunity to meet her. My dad especially is very ill and will likely not have the chance to see her grow up and is understandably eager to spend as much time with his granddaughter as possible. We’ve done our best to see my parents safely this summer outdoors, but that will change as the weather soon gets too cold and snowy. The way we have managed seeing them indoors (rarely) is by strictly quarantining for 14 days beforehand. I am hoping to do this during my maternity leave so they will have the opportunity to be a part of my daughter’s life before we need to start putting her in child care of some sort, which will make that harder.

My in-laws, however, want to see her too. But they have taken a somewhat more freewheeling approach to risk. Even absent that, a few members of my husband’s family continue to be required to go into an office for work every day, which is not something they can control. I am tempted to say that anyone seeing the baby needs to quarantine strictly, not just for her protection, but so we can see my parents. That said, this conversation is likely to devolve because my parents are fortunate enough to be retired while my in-laws are not, and I’ve been accused of “playing favorites” with my parents versus my partner’s in the past. Is there a way to make peace? I love my own parents too much to be objective about what’s “fair,” and being this pregnant I tend to get emotional. I really pushed this out of my mind until now because I never thought in a million years we would still be dealing with this pandemic at this point, but my OB is indicating he thinks things may get worse and even be peaking around the time she is born.

—November Baby

Dear November,

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to tell (or remind) your in-laws that as much as you wish everyone could be together after the baby’s birth, we are in the midst of a pandemic. And thus, until it’s absolutely safe for people to freely visit anyone not a part of their household, no one can visit with the baby who hasn’t been able to strictly quarantine for 14 days. Period. You don’t have to bring up your parents (who presumably are strictly quarantining all the time). If you are asked if your parents are going to be allowed access, you can say, “Like anyone else in the family who has strictly quarantined for 14 days. We’re not making any exceptions. I’m really sorry. We can’t.” Leave all the rest out of it—who has to go to work, who doesn’t, who’s being “freewheeling” about risk … and your own desire to make sure your parents, particularly your father, get to spend time with the baby while they can. When your maternity leave ends and you begin to use child care, you will have to recalibrate, of course. But first things first. This has nothing to do (or at any rate it doesn’t have to) with fairness, or with being “emotional” because you’re eight months pregnant. Your primary task, once this baby is born, is to do right by her, and that includes protecting her from any possible exposure to the virus. Repeat this as often as necessary to anyone who asks.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a mother to two girls, a 2-year-old and a 2-day-old. Christmas is my absolute favorite holiday, and I love doing all the Christmas things—decorating the house, making cookies every other day, going overboard with presents, etc. However, I feel torn about the whole Santa thing. Would I be ruining their Christmas or depriving them of their childhood if I tell them upfront that Santa is make-believe? I really don’t want to “lie” to them, and the idea of a strange man being in our home—but it’s OK because he’s bringing gifts!—creeps me out. Plus, I would rather not deal with their disappointment when they learn the truth one day. However, I wouldn’t want them ruining it for other kids—which no matter how I explain it I think is still a possibility … and how do I explain it, anyway? I’ve read some variations of “Santa is more of the idea of giving and doing nice things for people … and now that you know the ‘secret,’ you can be a Santa too!” But even that I feel is a lot for a young child to comprehend. And what about next year when my oldest starts getting excited because she hears Santa is coming? Just go along with it? I know in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that big a deal, but I would feel better if I had a plan on how to approach the topic. Any advice?

—Santa Circumvent

Dear Santa,

Oh, dear, I didn’t think I’d have to answer this question until December (I guess, like Christmas decorations in stores, it happens earlier every year). I’ve talked about this before—I consider myself the go-to advice columnist for telling-the-truth-about-Santa—so I’ll give you (and everyone else, prophylactically) the gist of my thinking here: I don’t believe any parent who doesn’t feel comfortable with it should feel obliged to do the Santa thing. I didn’t do it. I’m not good at lying—and I mean any kind of lying, even the kind (like this) that almost no one thinks of as lying—and I knew I couldn’t pull it off (or if I did, I’d be miserable). And I assure you my daughter’s childhood wasn’t ruined by it. I told my daughter, the first time she asked, that Santa was a fun idea, something people have made up in order to make Christmas even more fun than it already is, and we could pretend that Santa was real like other people did. And then I cautioned her that there were lots of children who believed that Santa was real, and that that was extra fun for them, so she would need to be very careful not to ruin that fun for them.

And I swear to you: This was no big deal. She didn’t agonize over knowing the secret; she came running downstairs on Christmas morning to see what “Santa” had brought her; she was careful not to ruin anyone else’s Christmas by telling them that it was all a game of let’s-pretend.

I think the bottom line here is that if you enjoy doing this sort of thing with your kids, you do it; if you don’t, you don’t do it. Your children will be fine.

But I also think that you don’t have to worry about this quite yet. At 2, the difference between what’s real and what’s not is pretty blurry. You’re getting ahead of yourself. (Plus: With a newborn at home, I think you might be looking for things to worry about? You have way more pressing concerns right now. This sounds like a case of displacement activity—if I am remembering my long-ago Psych 101 class.) Try to relax about Christmas. For one thing, even your older daughter is too young to make sense of it yet. For another—well, you know, it’s still months away.

—Michelle

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